By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — It’s one of the region’s largest and busiest public recreational areas, seeing hundreds of visitors pass through it’s gated entrance every day in summer and well-used throughout the year.
But Winnekenni Park, a 700-acre property boasting miles of multi-use trails, a popular swimming pond and Haverhill’s famous Gothic castle on the hill, could be so much more, according to City Councilor Thomas Sullivan, a longtime member of the Winnekenni Foundation and one of several unofficial caretakers of the park off Route 110 near Kenoza Lake.
Sullivan, who lives across the street from the park, has developed a comprehensive plan for restoring and improving the park that he pitched to his council colleagues and Mayor James Fiorentini last week.
The 11-page plan runs the gamut from basic maintenance such as trimming tangled and overgrown trees and weeds near the main entrance and along the shores of the basin pond, to more imaginative ideas such as bringing castle-themed paddle boats to the basin or nearby Plug Pond, in the spirit of Boston Common’s swan boats.
Other more creative ideas include installing racquetball, badminton, volleyball and bocce ball courts near Plug Pond recreational area. The pond — also known as Lake Saltonstall — is only a 15-minute walk from one of several parking areas near the park’s entrance.
Sullivan’s plan also identifies a number of ideas for how to pay for improvements to the park, pond and castle, including state grants and a modest user fee — $5 per season for residents and $10 for others.
“I see cars in here with license plates from Alaska, Hawaii, Florida and California all the time,” Sullivan said. “It’s people who grow up around here who are back for weddings or funerals or whatever and come up here because they remember the park from when they were a kid. I don’t think they’d mind paying a few dollars to preserve it.”
Sullivan proposes stationing someone at the front entrance in summer months only to collect the fee between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m
“Enforcement would be passive in the sense that it would take staff to monitor the entrance and collect the fee,” he said.
The Winnekenni Foundations, which focuses on the castle, lacks an endowment fund and badly needs benefactors, Sullivan said. To pay for basic upkeep of the park, the foundation relies on private donations, cultural council grants for specific community programs and the generosity of the city in providing manpower for activities such as collecting trash and trimming trees and brush.
Dog parks, visitor’s centers and restoring majestic views
Sullivan would like space in the park set aside for an “official” dog park in back of Plug Pond.
“In truth, the areas is one big dog park,” Sullivan said of the park. “But there is certainly enough forest to create a safe, secure, off-lease area for dogs and their owners.”
He also would like to see a large, vacant city-owned home near the park’s entrance converted to a visitor’s center, rest-room facility and community meeting center.
“It could also be a headquarters for a Summer Youth Forest Ranger Program where we could employ teenagers to help clean the trails and make repairs and improvements to the park, pond and castle,” according to the plan.
Perhaps the most ambitious idea in Sullivan’s plan is to thin the forest around the castle so it can once again be seen by people driving along Route 110, and so Kenoza Lake’s sprawling expanse can be seen from the winding road that leads to and from the castle.
“What a thrill it was as a kid seeing the castle lit up on the hill while driving by on Route 110,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said there’s $500,000 in state money that’s potentially available for Haverhill to harvest and thin woods around the castle and other parts of the city. Time is running out to obtain that money, however, which is in the state’s 2008 Environmental Bond Bill and expires at the end of this year.
“Even if the city were to realize a portion of the $500,000, our timeline could be accelerated to remove dead and decaying trees and begin the process of selectively harvesting and replenishing the forest,” Sullivan said.
Heart of plan: Basic maintenance, improving what’s already there
Sullivan’s plan would renovate or at least repair the “deplorable” rest room facilities in the tennis hut located near four newly resurfaced tennis courts at the park’s entrance. The fence that surrounds the courts also needs to be repainted, he said.
He would also improve the playground area near the entrance and possibly add a water spray park there. His plan suggests moving a popular winter sledding hill near the entrance away from the road that winds from the bottom of the property to the castle perked high above.
The plan starts with addressing a variety of basic maintenance issues at the entrance, including repointing the circa 1873 castle piers that frame the entrance way and trimming the heavy and mangled brush that blocks views of the the property from people driving by on Route 110.
Sullivan said a number of volunteers and city groups maintain specific attractions in the park, but that the city needs to do more to help. For instance, he said the Haverhill Tennis Club takes care of the courts; the Haverhill Trails Committee looks after the many miles of hiking, biking, skiing and horse-riding paths; and the Winnekenni Foundation manages the property’s signature castle. But he said there are many projects that are too expensive or time-consuming for those groups to do on their own.
Castle on the hill
The park is best know for what’s at the top. Built between 1873 and 1875 by Dr. James Nichols and sold to the city in 1895, the castle has been a living postcard for more than a century.
Decades ago, people used the castle as a backdrop for weddings and other social events, but there was no going inside the damaged and neglected building. In 1968, the Winnekenni Foundation took over the castle and began the slow process of restoring it. Recent improvements include a new roof, 47 new windows, exterior stone work and the addition of flower beds around the structure. Today, the castle hosts concerts and events including a pancake breakfast on the Fourth of July, psychic readings and an annual Halloween haunt.
Sullivan’s plan includes several ideas to further improve the castle and the structures around it. A trustees since 2005, Sullivan said events there have grown considerably in recent years and that the time has come to turn the operation of the castle over to a professional management company.
“This would allow the board to concentrate once again on providing oversight, guidance and long-term strategic and capital planning,” said Sullivan, who added he will soon resign from the board to avoid any appearance of a conflict with his City Council position.
His plan proposes a fundraising campaign to rehabilitate a dilapidated barn near the castle that he would like to see converted to a performing arts center, gift shop and cafe. Another structure near the castle could be converted to a horse stable and leased to a private group for horse-back riding on designated trails, according to the plan.
Sullivan said the foundation is talking to a local bank about providing money to add parking areas, picnic grounds, lights and signs around the castle.
The foundation would also like to hire a private management to assist the castle’s year-round caretaker, who lives in a cottage near the structure.
“Most of the ideas could be accomplished in the short-term with a modest influx of revenues from the city and support for private partners,” Sullivan said of his plan.
Sullivan said the main purpose of his plan is to spark a “conversation” among city officials and the public about improving one of Haverhill’s greatest natural resources and assets.
“No other city or town has a park like this and it is up to all of us to determine how to maintain and improve it in the future, to continue its use and enjoyment for generations of our citizens and visitors,” Sullivan said.